The Go Between L.P. Hartley – An ideal summer read

I admit that I have not read this book in the very recent past, but we did read it last year for book group, and way back in the last century(!) I studied it for A level. We ended up talking about the book and the film at a recent group, as it is, undoubtedly, the book to read in a heatwave.

Of course, these things are all relative. I cannot say it’s precisely boiling here in the north east, but it is warmer than usual. Jackets have been removed in the village! In the event of you being in a place where the heat haze is shimmering, this book is the one to read. It expresses so well the feeling of a summer building to a climax. The emotional temperature boils over in this novel, as adult actions have a severe impact on the child narrator, as the whole social system moves into war and destruction.

The film is available on dvd, yet I remember being piled on a minibus to go and see it on a ‘big’ screen in Warwick University. Beautifully made, it stars Julie Christie and the wonderful Alan Bates among others, and is just wonderfully filmed with a real sense of place, heat, and time. If you have not seen it, I can recommend it.

The narration of the book is written through the eyes of an older man, recalling a glorious summer in his childhood. It begins with a truly memorable line, “The past is another country, they do things differently there.” Leo is sent to stay at the house of a school friend for the summer. Thus he encounters a house party of confusing adults whose lives as the well off local gentry are alien to his experience and expectations. He wears the wrong clothes, is too affected by the cricket and concert which marks the differences in class and responsibility, and cannot understand the language and jokes of the upper classes at play. The central drama revolves around an illicit relationship into which Leo gets dragged as messenger and go between.

There are so many images here that linger in the memory, mainly from the book but ably reinforced by the film. The beautiful but dangerous weed, belladonna. The heat of  an inappropriate outfit which must be replaced. The birthday excitement never quite realised. The events of this book are obviously, for the reader, building to an inevitable climax from which no one benefits, that destroys and shocks in its intensity. Yes, the storm is coming, that will break the heat in so many ways. Many an essay has been written about unreliable narrators, symbolism and  the period just before the First World War on the basis of this book, but it is just a good (and not an over- long) novel which should be easy to find.

London War Notes by Mollie Panter – Downes A Persephone Great!

I love Persephone books! So much that I have a grey sitting room with a lovely bookshelf (three shelves) full of the Persephone grey books. I do own the complete set (well, number 45 has gone missing – tsk!) and collect duplicates on the rare occasions I find them in second hand shops. So yes, I have well over a hundred Persephone grey books. Not that I’m obsessed or anything….

London War Notes

Persephone do eighteen books on the Second World War. This includes novels, short story collections and possibly my favourite , Few Eggs and No Oranges. This is actually a diary written by Vere Hodgson of her experiences in wartime London, which I have reviewed elsewhere. You will find details of all the books and much else besides on the website which is well worth a look.

My most recent read is one of their newest books, no. 111. Mollie Panter – Downes is an author of short stories, which also appear on the Persephone list. This book is a collection of her regular letters/ articles written for The New Yorker from 1939 onwards. In it she writes of a London under attack, dealing with air raid precautions, shortages and Government attitudes. It is a fascinating book of reportage which we can read with the benefit of hindsight, but which represents a mission which Mollie was engaged upon; it was vital that the Americans provided the resources to pursue the war and engage in hostilities themselves on the side of the Allies. Thus Mollie had to pursue a careful line of truth, humour and propaganda in order to influence her readers on the other side of the Atlantic. Readers of other writing of the period will appreciate that terror and despair, however truthful, would not attract and retain readers, but humour and realism may do so. We have the word pictures of old ladies running across roof tops, the way newspapers were handed on as soon as read in order to spread the news of battle, and how, when entertaining soldiers from America, tea is not so welcome as whisky which they will not realize”that it’s hard to come by in England nowadays”. Thus is an entire rationing system conveyed subtly and without complaint. As  early as 1942 people are eager to know about plans to invade Europe by the Allies, which we perhaps would not realize when remembering the V.E. Day celebrations of 1945. Mollie reveals a country desperate for information and hope, and does it in elegant prose which manages to convey much between the lines. For example, when deploring the reservations about women being ARP wardens for moral reasons, she points out that the women of Stalingrad have no choice about being involved in total war. The evacuations of children and their return to London is covered.Mollie manages to make some sense out of a time of confusion, which is no mean achievement given the difficulties of even getting her copy to the US.

This is an immensely readable book which I read quickly, never getting bogged down in facts and figures, but seeing the human war that was being waged on the home front.  The style is friendly but truthful, well written especially when considering its immediacy and heavy propaganda role. It would definitely be of interest to anyone who wants to find out about the Second World War from a first hand view, a woman’s view, and an entertaining read.

The Importance of being Earnest – or David!

Just a quick note about a play soon to be at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, but which I have already seen at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle.

Yes, I admit that my impulse to book seats for this production stemmed from too many hours spent watching Poirot on tv, but also from the excellent programmes David Suchet has done on Christian saints. Peter really enjoyed his autobiography too, which details the filming of all the stories.

I wondered if the entire production would be geared to his appearances as Lady B, but I need not have been concerned. Yes, he was greeted by applause at his first entry, but quite honestly he was excellent in a very good production.The costume and makeup was entirely convincing, and he does so much with just a look or gesture that it was a really enjoyable performance. The highlight was not the “handbag” line but when he sat, retrieved a notebook and flipped it open in a very “Poirot” manner. It was  a really memorable performance.

It would be remiss not to say that the rest of the actors in this production were very enthusiastic and more than rose to the challenge of a star performance. I thought that Philip Cumbus did a great job as Algernon, all activity and interest. Imogen Doel was completely convincing as a impulsive  Cecily who said a lot with movement and gesture. My resident expert said that Richard O’Callaghan was a model clergyman. I thought that Michele Dotrice got every particle of humour from the part of Miss Prism, and overall the play was very well performed. Other people who managed to get tickets also really enjoyed it, especially the competitive eating at the end of the second Act.

This is one of these plays where half the audience knew the lines well, but nevertheless it’s a really enjoyable production which looks and sounds brilliant!

A Dangerous Place – Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

I like, as an alternative to ploughing through more worthy reads such as Secret Scripture, reading series of books. Often they are set in the regency period, but there is an enormous choice of fake Golden Age mysteries, often featuring vaguely aristocratic women, who end up solving murder mysteries. (See any good library for details)

One of the best written is the Maisie Dobbs series, by Jacqueline Winspear. Her central character is a young woman who is sponsored for education by a benefactor who picks up that a servant girl is spending a lot of time in the library. She goes to college, only to have her studies interrupted by the First World War, where she works as a nurse. She is injured, and there is the carnage and after effects of battle to deal with. There is romance, gory injuries, and sensitive writing on those whose lives were turned upside down by loss. There are eight or nine books to follow, as Maisie trains as a detective not necessarily of just murder, though death and murder often feature. She is attracted by the spiritual dimension of solving mysteries, and her teacher and mentor is an interesting character. It would not be strictly necessary to read these books in order, but would help if you can find them and tackle them as there are a lot of loose threats which go from book to book.

As to this book in the series, the latest, be aware it is not fun in any respect. At least one author suggested that a writer should put their characters through the wringer to see what they do. This book takes that to extremes before the book has even begun. So our main character, not for the first time, finds herself tackling a mysterious death against a background of her own grief. For the first time this book is not set in Britain, especially a fog filled London of backstreets and social inequality. Gibraltar in the late 1930s was a place of refugees from the Spanish Civil War just over the border, and those who have lived there for generations are challenged by events and causes so near and yet, politically, so far from their experience. As Hitler’s forces mass and practise their offensive tactics, Maisie finds herself confused and threatened not only by the obvious dangers but also those who want her to stop looking into a political scene shifting and changing by the day. She is also being influenced by her own grief and that of those still in England. I must admit to being underwhelmed by this element. Even though I have carefully kept up with this series, I still got a bit confused. Winspear is trying to achieve a lot in this book, not least a picture of the Spanish situation at the time, and I’m not sure she achieves everything. Her insistence on describing every single outfit Maisie wears can get a little boring, especially as she has a never ending supply of fresh white shirts ( magically washed, dried and ironed?) which does not work out from her minimal packing. I also find her spiritual seeking a bit distracting, as I would enjoy a few more clues and a little less intuition.

These, however, are small quibbles with a series of books that take on the themes of women surviving alone in that (for me at least) fascinating interwar period. They are not as easy to read as some of these series, and lack the sometimes outrageous humour of other stories, but are probably all the better for it. These are literary murder mysteries, with an excellent background of research and atmosphere. I like that some of the mysteries are not neatly tied up, and that the grief of victims families is not wiped out by discovering the murderer or circumstances of death. There are times when I wish the writer would allow a little more happiness  to exist, but reality always intrudes.

Last year Winspear produced a non – Maisie Dobbs book, partly to mark, I imagine,  the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. This stand alone book features characters, mainly two women, who find themselves in very different situations in August 1914. The way that they react, and the pressures on them, mean that they follow interesting paths of fear, duty and supporting those that they love. There are the influences of family and the battle for women’s rights as well as the terrors of the front. This novel may be a good starting place for those wishing to find out about what women actually did in the war time, as well as those who want to read a Winspear novel without the full biography of any one character in mind.

Overall, if you enjoy Sarah Waters books and or books set in the interwar period, these are good books to read. If you get hooked, good luck in finding all the books!

The Secret Scripture – Sebastian Barry. A book Club choice

I admit that I am a bit late to the party with this one, which surfaced as a choice for our Book Club. I also admit that, had it been my choice, I probably would not have fought on with it…

This is a book not overloaded with humour and optimism, at least in the first section or two. There is a fairly high body count, and a depressing air about the whole proceedings. A patient in a mental hospital is recording the life that she remembers, over about a hundred years. The fact that she grew up in an Ireland beset by the Troubles means that family history, the religion of birth, and following certain occupations can mark a person down regardless of beauty, intelligence or love. She writes of a loving father, a disturbed mother, and events in her early life that shake her existence. At the same time she pens her account, she is being assessed for transfer by Dr. Grene, who takes an interest in this, his oldest patient whose life story becomes a welcome distraction from his rocky marriage.

So far so dismal…but there is some beautiful writing here. Roseanne draws lovely pictures from her memory of coastal scenery, exciting Saturday nights at the local dance hall, and a loving if eccentric father. The account shifts, changes, as the nature of her memories, the bewilderment at what occurred, takes over. The interpretations and fact finding of the doctor proceed which throw doubt on Roseanne’s veracity. Alongside all this is the background of religious turmoil and very real threats to everyone in the town as a result of the division between Protestant and Catholic, rebellion and government.

This book was a brilliant choice for a book club in that there is a lot to discuss, especially in the light of memories of Ireland in the troubles. It is also a fascinating account of the differences of memory and perspective when compared to the hard facts of what happened to individuals in the face of condemnation of women, often carried out by representatives of the established church. The most frightening character in the book is Father Gaunt, who personifies the power of the Catholic church in people’s lives, a character thoughtfully drawn.

There are little patches of humour and good feeling in this book, and I was urged to keep going when I threatened to give up in the face of disaster and dismay in the early part of the novel. I felt the ending was a bit obvious, but nonetheless well rounded and leaving some questions hanging which provided more discussion points. The writing and imagery of this book is worth exploring. I believe that some of the characters appear in the author’s other books, so it may be good to track them down. Altogether a book which evokes strong feelings, is a good read, but frankly is not the most cheerful read.

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Andy Miller

If I said that I read 180 books last year, you would say that I need to get out more. I promise, I do sometimes go out, and help organise coffee mornings, belong to a writing group, and other things… But I do buy a lot of books, and keep the local library’s borrowing figures up. Yes, people, I admit. I am addicted to books.

Which makes reading today’s books, A Year of  Reading Dangerously, familiar yet at times incomprehensible.

Andy Miller evidently realised that he was spending too much time checking his phone, staring out of windows and other things, and that  he would devote his time to reading. Not just anything, but (eventually) fifty books that would lead to “Betterment”. These are the books that he has claimed to have read over decades, but with one or two exceptions, hasn’t actually got round to actually, well, reading.

So this is a book of guilt. Guilt that we have acquired books that we haven’t actually read, that we hoard in case the right moment comes to embark on the new translation of War and Peace, or the latest ‘must read’. Guilt that we start a book and don’t actually finish it, in favour of a less worthy, but much easier read (or reread). Guilt that we claim to know all about a book when we have only read the reviews.

If any of the above seems familiar, then there are parts of this book that will be painfully well written. It also deals with book groups in their infinite variety, where and where to read books, and a touching section on meeting Douglas Adams. There is a lot about Andy Miller and his life, especially as an editor, reader, husband and dad. This is a very readable book about a developing obsession with reading and its effects, and I enjoyed it overall.

This is not a book to be read if you want a what to read next guide, and despite the spoilers warning, doesn’t really tell you much about the books mentioned. This is a bad thing, because, like any book obsessive, I’m always keen to know what other people think about books I have read and enjoyed. There are a few books here that I really don’t recognise, and frankly from the description here, I’m no further forward. So, it may be worth skipping bits of this book, which is a shame, unless you want to know about German pop music, or whatever at least one chapter is about.

Overall, this is a good book about reading books, funny, involving and realistic. It may well suggest how you can read more books with enjoyment, beyond the ones mentioned here. It is not a detailed lit criticism book, and you may come away from it no further forward in discovering new books to read. Dangerously? No. Inconveniently, yes. Funny? definately.

Dorothy L. Sayers Unnatural Death….and a talk to come

Dorothy L. Sayers created one of the most popular detectives in the 1920s and 1930s, Lord Peter Wimsey. A man that could have been dismissed as a fashionable twit, he instead opts to become an amateur detective, of the very best type. He does make leaps of deduction which stretch belief on occasions, but essentially there is a lot of dashing about in fast (for the day) cars, fascinating characters and interesting locations. The methods of murder are various and thoughtful; the plots are definitely well worked out. There is also a lot of social comment and historical information to be found in these novels, and anyone with and interest in the period would be well rewarded by reading how some of the people lived.

Of course, for many the novels get more interesting (and arguably better balanced) when the character of Harriet Vane is introduced in Strong Poison.  Certainly I find them more enjoyable when Peter has someone else, as bright and intelligent as he is, to argue with through the cases. There has been a lot of discussion that Harriet is in fact Dorothy herself, and I’m not sure that’s any bad thing. Gaudy Night  does take some reading, but I think it has to be approached as different from the murder mysteries which proceed it.

Unnatural Death (1927)   is a lesser known novel of Lord Peter’s adventures; at least I do not believe it was filmed for television, with either Ian Carmichel or Edward Petherbridge, in the 70s or 80s. It features a lot of charging round the countryside and more than one murder, arguably. Peter does a little work in disguise, and there is some protest from Parker as the senior policeman in the case as he   gets dumped with the more boring bits. There is a lot of coincidence to contend with, as well as some unlikely motivation for some events, but essentially it is an interesting read of its type. It does hinge on a legal argument which I found intriguing, but it is a bit obscure. There is an argument for a family tree here, as well as some wincing over attitudes to race and gender. It is a good read, and for Peter Wimsey completists  essential to the development of Peter’s character.

I enjoyed the television versions on video, and the good news now is that you can get them all on dvd. Really enjoyable period pieces, as of course even the recordings are last century…

Image result for ian carmichael

The talk? later in June I’m giving a talk on the spirituality of Dorothy L. Sayers, which is proving an interesting challenge. She wrote some very interesting Christian plays and essays, which are a little more challenging than even the most obscure murder. My friend Michel Hampel is doing a lecture on Sayers at St Paul’s Cathedral over the next few days, so it may be worth investigating. Of course, she wrote a lot of the advertising for Guinness Toucan…


And the two men who brought Lord Peter to life…..


Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a book, a group and a play

There are many editions of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and many people have read it more than once! I first read it out of desperation when I had been away from school for weeks and someone had told me it was our class text. Needless to say, I devoured it; the tale of a nervous young woman suddenly whisked away to live in the splendour that was Manderley was irresistible. Then a mystery that excited the sympathies for a guilty party, all against the background of a Cornwall that I could only dream of from the frankly boring Midlands. Tales of shipwrecks, sea mists and not least grand parties had me hooked, along with the self conscious writing about the need to hold onto wonderful moments for when life returned to normal. It was, and is, a wonderful book.

We read it as part of our Book group, and were amazed, looking back, at how much we had all enjoyed it. We realised that there were some very interesting themes to be considered; jealousy, the lack of confidence of the nameless heroine, the destruction and pain to be caused by Mrs Danvers and of course, the eponymous character of Rebecca herself. The characters themselves fascinated us, as we debated the character of the narrator herself, seen through the eyes of those around her. We even speculated which character we would most like to meet. I thought Beatrice at lest knew what was going on. Maxim was an enigma; marrying the complete opposite of his first wife on what seemed to be a whim, then almost leaving her to cope with the past instead of her own future. The greatest achievement, I think, is creating the sense of a thriller when the book’s opening chapter reveals so much of what eventually happens. I’m not surprised that there have been at least two well written ‘sequels’, by Sally Beauman and Susan Hill, as there are so many questions left to answer.

It was with great expectations that we went to see Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Rebecca. It was an interesting version; the difficulties of staging a play so connected to a place were boldly tackled with a clever stage design inventively used by the talented cast. I’m not sure that the elements of comedy worked, and certainly the characters were not what I expected. The central, nameless role was well realised, and the music was haunting and scene enhancing. Some of the action was mystifying, and I’m not sure that some of it worked, but overall it tackled a complex book in an absorbing way, and the production presented varied entertainment at the very least! If you go on the company’s website you will get a flavour of it :

Overall, this is a classic book. If you have never read it, do track down a copy and sink in. If you read it ages ago, try a reread. You will find new things here!